[This post contains mild SPOILERS for the first four episodes of 12 Monkeys season 3.]
Is a cable channel like Syfy ready to embrace the binge-watch model that has become synonymous with streaming content on providers like Netflix and Amazon? The answer is: yes and no. Still reliant on advertisers, Syfy can’t quite eschew a television schedule completely, so when it comes time to premiere season 3 of 12 Monkeys the goal becomes to get the release of all 10 episodes in the season as close to the all-at-once-method as possible while still being able to market it as an event viewers won’t want to miss because of what’s at stake in the narrative and the ever present fear of missing out that has become a telltale byproduct of Peak TV.
The ambitiousness of releasing 10 episodes over the course of a single weekend mirrors the increasingly ambitious science fiction series’ third season narrative, while still seeking an answer to the pervasive question of when, exactly, people plan to tune in. That is: do fans plan to devote an entire weekend to watching the series’ penultimate season live or will other things, like life and, you know, Twin Peaks get in the way? It’s an interesting question that speaks to the shifting concerns of television networks as they weigh the desire for live ratings against creating a content library that can sustain viewers’ impulsive watching habits for years to come. In a sense, then, 12 Monkeys season 3 feels like it could be summed up three ways – as a weekend-long event, a test case for a cable channel’s examination of the binge-watching model, and through a more cynical lens, as yet another example of a season of television being burned off to make room for newer content.
Whatever the case may be behind Syfy’s decision to turn the third season of its adaptation of Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys into a three-night event, there is still the matter of the huge reveal at the end of season 2 that paradoxically turned James Cole and Cassandra Railly into the parents of the Witness, otherwise known as the leader of the Army of the 12 Monkeys and the guy trying to destroy time itself. It’s one of those plot twists that can only happen thanks to the logic-bending nature of time travel stories, and in the case of 12 Monkeys, it also affords a terrific platform for Tom Noonan to be incredibly creepy, especially when referencing the unborn child Cassandra is carrying.
The first third of the bingeable season makes a strong case for why 12 Monkeys deserves to be watched, and considering the pacing of the first four episodes, it also makes a strong case for the efficacy of the network’s deviation from the standard delivery system. The initial four hours feel uniquely of a piece. The writers successfully compartmentalize a significant chunk of the season’s story, reducing the needs of the various characters – James, Cassandra, Ramsey, Jennifer, Dr. Jones, and even Deacon (yes, it takes more than a vicious beating at the hands of the Army of the 12 Monkeys to kill Deacon) – to either their immediate survival or finding a loved one. Keeping James and Cassandra separate for the first few hours allows the series to gradually build tension about the truth of the Witness’s origins by keeping it from James until the last possible moment. It also works to give supporting players plenty of time in the spotlight early on.
In the first four hours, not only is Cassandra forced to give birth to a child who will eventually become the man destined to destroy time, but 12 Monkeys also finds the time to devote impressive chunks to Jennifer hiding out in France after surviving being dropped in the trenches of WWI. The show even goes so far as to show the execution of several French soldiers by a German commander from Jennifer’s, well, let’s say unique way of seeing the world, turning the moment into a confetti-strewn pop-music video for Nena’s ’99 Luftballoons’. The same is true for another dark aside, watching Deacon convalesce and deal with his own personal demons before rescuing Cassie from Titan. Of course, there are plenty of interesting wrinkles thrown in to complicate things, like Mallick’s betrayal of the Pallid Man and Ramsey’s involvement with the seemingly indestructible Olivia that results in his timeline seemingly coming to an end.
And yet, by breaking the binge-watch up into three parts, 12 Monkeys is able to capture something that’s too often missing from shows on Netflix or Amazon: there’s a real sense of anticipation – for those who choose to watch live, anyway. The first four hours successfully bring the season’s first act to a close, but viewers will have to wait to see what happens next. That denial of instant gratification and the building of anticipation is still the one thing traditional TV has over streaming (unless you tune into Hulu’s originals), and although the window for that anticipation to build or to reach a fever pitch is much smaller, it’s still there and it’s still significant.
As 12 Monkeys season 3 progresses over the course of a single weekend, there will only be one more opportunity for viewers to experience that kind of anticipation with regard to this current batch of episodes. It’s a small thing to obsess over, but it also adds to the overall enjoyment of the series and the experience of watching it. In that sense, the binge-watch stunt is already a success, albeit only for those who are willing to spend the weekend watching an increasingly complex time travel story unfold a few hours at a time. Like its streaming counterparts, 12 Monkeys season 3 will still be there after the weekend is over, and viewers can tune in at their leisure at that point, but for those who don’t want to miss out on experiencing the sense of anticipation that vanishes with a binge-watch, this weekend presents a compelling enough reason to tune in.
12 Monkeys season 3 will continue with the next four episodes on Saturday, May 20 and the final 3 episodes on Sunday, May 21.